Race to See Who Can Be Florida’s Most Anti-Illegal Immigration Candidate

Florida Coast - Photo: Seamoor/flickr

Cuban boats on Florida shoreline. (Photo: Seamoor/flickr)

Tuesday’s Republican gubernatorial primary in Florida is a face-off between newcomer Rick Scott, a wealthy health care executive, and the state’s attorney general Bill McCollum, a political veteran. The winner will ultimately compete against Democrat Alex Sink, Florida’s chief financial officer, and independent Lawton “Bud” Chiles, the son of a popular governor and U.S. senator.  An Aug. 19 Quinnipiac University poll showed Sink with a slight edge over both GOP candidates, but that might just be due to Republican infighting.

Scott and McCollum are waging a fierce battle of TV ads, in which they try to out-do each other in opposing illegal immigration. It was Scott’s fierce attacks that pushed McCollum to switch his position on SB 1070,  Arizona’s controversial new immigration law. McCollum initially said he didn’t think Florida should enact a similar law, but ultimately came around to proposing an even harsher measure for the Sunshine State.  Rubén Funes, the editor of La Prensa, a Spanish-language newspaper in Central Florida, says McCollum hadn’t really touched the immigration issue before his campaign for governor.

“The reaction of immigrants here in Central Florida was complete surprise, because they didn’t consider McCollum an anti-immigration guy,” said Funes.

In an effort to court Florida’s Republican constituency, particularly in a region where the Tea Party movement is gaining influence, McCollum chose the politically expedient thing to do, and that was to sound off about undocumented immigrants.

“It’s no coincidence that McCollum’s change in position resulted in his rise in polls,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

But even as McCollum’s strong anti-illegal immigrant stance won support among conservative white voters, it took a number of Hispanics in Florida by surprise, and cost him support among some Latino GOP leaders. The Miami Herald reports that McCollum was criticized by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an outspoken conservative Republican from Miami.

“I’m disappointed and was blindsided by Bill’s decision to promote this, and I encourage the candidates to focus on plans that will improve Florida’s economy, bring jobs to our state and jump-start our tourism,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I fail to see how promotion of this issue will accomplish that, and I was taken aback.”

The GOP has a history of strong support by Hispanic voters in Florida, mainly among the Cuban exile population in the southern part of the state.  Ros-Lehtinen is Cuban American, and her reaction to McCollum’s immigration is notable, since many Cuban-Americans are critical of undocumented immigration.  Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American who is running to represent the state in the U.S. Senate has spoken about the country’s “runaway illegal immigration problem.”

Though older Cuban voters tend to be hard-line Republicans, in Central Florida, people of Puerto Rican descent account for about 40% of Hispanic voters, and they are largely Democrats. A recent National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) breakdown of the state’s evolving electorate showed that overall, 39% of the state’s Hispanic population is Democratic, while 32% is Republican and 29% identifies as “other.”

Central Florida is often the region that swings state elections, and Funes noted he’s seen growing unease about racial profiling among Puerto Ricans who live there. If McCollum or Scott’s immigration proposals were to be enacted, local police would be required to check the status of individuals they suspect of being undocumented.

“Even though they are legal, they are thinking now they might be affected by immigration law because they look Mexican. A lot of them are realizing that they might be asked for papers and they don’t like that,” Funes told Fi2W.

But the editor of La Prensa says that despite all the media attention, it’s “unlikely” a law like SB 1070 would pass in the Florida legislature, and he considers McCollum’s immigration proposal political posturing more than anything else.  “I was surprised by McCollum, I’ve known him for years, and I thought he was a sensible guy, but I guess when you think you’re going to lose anything can happen,” Funes said.

Republican lobbyist and fundraiser Ana Navarro, also told the Herald she could no longer support McCollum after his immigration proposal.

“I will not campaign against McCollum but will also not lift a finger or raise one additional dollar to support his campaign,” she said. “Though I believe McCollum is far better prepared to be governor than Rick Scott, I cannot bring myself to cast a vote for either.”

The NALEO report shows a new influx of Central and South American immigrants into both South and Central Florida, as well as a second generation of young Cubans who have less of a connection to the Republican party. But even though the new immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, may have the most at stake when it comes to immigration laws, their clout at the polls is muted. Hispanics make up 21% of the state’s total population, but only 13% of its registered voters. Yet the report also shows that Hispanics are the fastest growing group of voters in Florida.

Polls suggest a close race for governor in the general election, regardless of who wins Tuesday’s primary.  The candidates’ stand on illegal immigration could help swing the Hispanic vote. Latino independents and Democrats may rally to support Sink because they see her as pro-immigrant. And if the reaction by Republican Hispanic leaders to McCollum’s immigration proposal is any indication, rank-and-file Hispanic Republicans may stay home on election day, giving Sink an extra advantage.

AboutSarah Kate Kramer
Sarah Kate Kramer first got hooked on collecting stories as a StoryCorps facilitator, then traveled the world with a microphone for a few years before settling down in her hometown of New York City. From 2010-2012 she was the editor of Feet in 2 Worlds and a freelance reporter for WNYC Radio, where she created “Niche Market,” a weekly segment that profiled specialty stores in New York. Sarah is now a producer at Radio Diaries, a non-profit that produces documentaries for NPR and other public radio outlets.